Off-piste skiing: 10 ways to improve

Posted by Sarah Stirling on 22/12/2016
Revelling in some off-piste fun. Photo: Shutterstock / lassedesignen

A range of Chamonix's expert skiers offer their top tips to improve your off-piste: pro skier Ross Hewitt, Avalanche Academy Director and Mountain Guide Stuart McDonald, and off-piste skiing instructors Alison Culshaw and Dee O'Neill.

1. Don't drive from the backseat

It can be a constant battle to get your weight forward after every turn, but if you're driving from the backseat, your turns will be late and energy-sapping. Modern skis with front rockers can be especially hard to drive off-piste without the tip diving. Try lifting your toes off the footbed while skiing and you will feel your weight going forward and pressure increasing on the front of your boot, where it should be.

2. Use slightly shorter poles

In soft snow you sit lower relative to the surface. Shorter poles will help keep your weight forward, as you stretch the pole out in front to initiate the turn. On steeps it's common to use poles that are 10cm shorter than normal.

3. Get stronger and more flexible

Skiing off-piste uses much more energy than general piste skiing, and the stronger you are the easier it is to control your skis. Initially quick gains can be made at the gym to maximise strength and power endurance. Do your pistol squats, leg presses, lunges, box jumps and improve your torso’s torsional strength. Increased flexibility will help you absorb the bumps and compressions without injury, too.

4. Continually scan the terrain ahead

That way, you can anticipate what's coming and make turns and weight adjustments accordingly. Too often our focus, especially under stress, is reduced to the patch of snow in front of our tips. When skiing fast, my eyes are continually flicking to as much as 100m ahead. If I’m doing 160 kph on a pair of race skis, I’ll be looking 500m ahead.

Ross Hewitt is a pro skier and trainee IFMGA Mountain Guide. He's a pro for Black Crows Skis and an ambassador for Petzl, Berghaus, Julbo Eyewear, Scarpa UK and PLUM: rosshewitt.net

WATCH: Backcountry Essentials: How to put skis on when it’s steep  on BMC TV

5. Mileage

Lots of it. Buy a pass and get as much skiing done as you possibly can. In all kinds of snow, and in all kinds of weather. If you only ski perfect powder on sunny days, you won't be able to deal with anything else.

6. Invest in off-piste lessons

A few tips from a friend is great, but many ski instructors spend half their time trying to undo bad habits. Take lessons right from the start. While many Brits complain about the price of lessons, you have to accept that skiing is a very technical discipline. It's normal to take driving lessons from a professional, but many try and do without them on the slopes. Don't kid yourself – a few half day lessons per trip with a properly qualified instructor will pay dividends in the long run.

Stuart McDonald is an IFMGA Mountain Guide and director of Chamonix's Avalanche Academy: www.avalancheacademy.com

WATCH: Backcountry Essentials: How to transition from skinning to bootpack on BMC TV

7. Use the piste as your training ground

Whether it's a bad weather day, or you're travelling from one bit of off-piste to another, use your time on piste constructively. With an extra little bit of focus, you can soon rack up the hours of practice time for off-piste without going anywhere near the powder.

8. Practice good habits, rather than repeating bad ones

Make your off-piste skills intuitive, otherwise you might find yourself defaulting to your piste manner when the going gets tough in the off-piste. For example, when you come across some bullet hard artificial snow, aim to ski it in control of your speed and line. This is excellent practice for when you come across icy patches off-piste. Similarly, practice doing short turns in a narrow corridor without your speed increasing. This will be very handy in steep, narrow couloirs.

Alison Culshaw holds the top level BASI Level 4 international ski teacher diploma. Read our interview with her in the latest Summit magazine and find her at: www.offpiste.org.uk

9. Remember it's a mental game as well as a physical one

Off-piste skiing is all about having the confidence to adapt to whatever the mountain throws at you, so practice, practice, practice. Practice blending lots of different skiing skills into one run, from long to short turns to skiing moguls or tackling an icy exit after a long day ski touring. If you want to ski narrow steeps, you need to practice short turns while controlling your speed in a set corridor, but practice on easier terrain first. Get the technique right first, then move onto more challenging terrain. Always challenge yourself a little.

10. Stay balanced and centred on your skis

This makes turning easier and less tiring on your body as your muscles aren't working as hard. You can re-train your muscle memory through correct ski practice.

Dee O'Neill is a ski instructor based in Chamonix and works for BASS Chamonix running off piste courses and women's specific off-piste camps www.basschamonix.com

WATCH: Ski touring the Aiguille Rouge on BMC TV


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